PBS documents describe Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman’s paths of freedom and faith

(RNS) – Frederick Douglass has called the Bible one of his most important resources and was involved in black church circles as he spent his life working to end what he called the “peculiar institution” of slavery.

Harriet Tubman felt divine inspiration amid her actions to free herself and dozens of others who had been enslaved in the American South.

The two abolitionists are the subject of a double documentary set, “Becoming Frederick Douglass” and “Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom,” co-produced by Maryland Public Television and Firelight Films and airing on PBS this month (October).

“I think Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass’ journey of faith was a big part of their story,” Stanley Nelson, co-director with Nicole London of the two hour-long films, said in an interview with Religion News. Service.

“Religion for Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass was in many ways the foundation of who they are.”

Stanley Nelson. Photo by Corey Nickols

The films, which took more than three years to produce in part due to a COVID-19 hiatus, detail the horrors of slavery that Tubman and Douglass witnessed. Tubman saw her sister sold to a new slaver and torn away from her children. A young Douglass hid in a closet as he watched his aunt get beaten up. They each expressed their belief in the providence of God playing a role in securing their freedom.


RELATED: 5 Religious Facts You May Not Know About Frederick Douglass


Scholars from both films spoke of the faith of these “original abolitionists,” as University of Connecticut historian Manisha Sinha called people like Tubman, who stood on pulpits and lecterns as they strove to put an end to the property of members of their race and sought to convince the whites. people to join their cause.

“The Bible was fundamental to Douglass as a writer, speaker and activist,” Harvard University researcher John Stauffer told Religion News Service in an email, expanding on his comments in the film about the former lay preacher. “It probably influenced him more than any other single work.”

Frederick Douglass, circa 1847-1852.  Photo by Samuel J. Miller, courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Frederick Douglass, circa 1847-1852. Photo by Samuel J. Miller, courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Stauffer said the holy book, which shaped Douglass’s speeches and writings, was the subject of lessons at a Sunday school he organized to teach other slaves.

“It is impossible to appreciate or understand Douglass without acknowledging the enormous influence the Bible had on him and his extraordinary knowledge of it,” Stauffer added.

Actor Wendell Pierce provides the voice of Douglass in the films, quoting him saying in an autobiography that William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist weekly The Liberator “took a place in my heart after the Bible”.

The documentary notes that Douglass was part of the circles of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore which included many free blacks. Scholars say he met his future wife Anna Murray, who encouraged him to pursue his own freedom, in this city.

“The AME Church has been central to not only creating a space of worship for African Americans, but also creating a support network for African Americans who have engaged in the struggle. against slavery,” Georgetown University historian Marcia Chatelain said in the film.

The Douglass documentary is set to premiere Tuesday, October 11 on PBS. It and the documentary Tubman, which first aired Oct. 4, will be available to stream for free for 30 days on PBS.org and the PBS video app after their original air dates. After running on the PBS website and other places for a month, the films, which include footage from the eastern shore of Maryland where Douglass and Tubman were born, will then be available on PBS Passport.

The Tubman documentary opens with his words, spoken by actress Alfre Woodard.

“God’s time is always near,” she says, in words she told writer Ednah Dow Littlehale Cheney around 1850. “He set the North Star in the heavens. He gave me strength in my limbs. He meant that I should be free.

Tubman, who early in her life suffered a serious injury and suffered from seizures and severe headaches, often had visions she interpreted as “signposts from God”, said the Rutgers University historian Erica A. Dunbar in the film.

Portrait of Harriet Tubman taken in Auburn, New York.  Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Portrait of Harriet Tubman taken in Auburn, New York. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

The woman known as “Moses” freed slaves by leading them through night escapes and later as a scout for the Union Army during the Civil War.

“She never accepted the praise or the responsibility, even, for those great feats,” Dunbar said. “She always saw herself as a vessel of her God.”

But, nonetheless, praise for Tubman came from Douglass, who noted in an 1868 letter that while his work was often public, his was mostly in secret, acknowledged only by the “sincere, ‘God bless you'” people she had helped achieve freedom.

Nelson, a man with no religious affiliation who created films about The United Methodist Church’s missionary work early in his career, said the documentary helps shed light on the importance of faith to Tubman.

“It’s something most people don’t know about and so many people seeing the movie for the first time are a bit surprised by it,” he said in an interview. “She felt she was being guided by a divine spirit and the spirit was telling her what to do.”


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